Oilers’ ability to unlock depth production crucial to pursuit of Stanley Cup

Edmonton Oilers general manager Ken Holland speaks at a press conference. (Jason Franson/CP)

EDMONTON — Various versions of the same sentiment have echoed through the hockey world over these past 24 hours.

“How must the Edmonton Oilers feel watching Vegas lift the Cup? They were tied 2-2 in their series.”

“How sour must Connor McDavid be, seeing Jack Eichel win a Cup before he does?”

“Would that have been the Oilers celebrating, if only they could have found a way to protect a lead against the Golden Knights?”

Here in Edmonton, it was a sign of progress to say the Oilers lost out to the eventual Stanley Cup-champion Colorado Avalanche a year ago. When it happens again, it’s no longer progress.

It becomes the question that is being thoroughly vetted at every level of this organization, as they see a Golden Knights team that wasn’t much better than the Oilers plan a Stanley Cup parade:

What did Vegas have that Edmonton didn’t?

“We had a one-goal lead in all six games against Vegas, but four times they beat us,” said general manager Ken Holland. “Why, exactly? We’ve had lots of conversations.

“I’ve got some ideas. We’ve got pro scout meetings (where it will be discussed). I’ve talked to Woody (head coach Jay Woodcroft) about it.”

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Holland and Woodcroft held their exit meetings with players, where they solicited opinions. Then Holland stopped in on his way to the NHL Combine in Buffalo to spend time with McDavid, who would have spoken plainly with his GM.

“I flew to Toronto last week (on his way) to the combine. I met with Connor. He’s our captain,” said Holland from Vernon, B.C., where the Oilers are holding scouting meetings before the upcoming NHL Draft. “I’ve always stayed in touch with the captains in the offseason. Whether it was (Steve) Yzerman, (Nick) Lidstrom, (Henrik) Zetterberg or Connor. They’re the captain, they’ve got a pulse for the room, and I like to bounce some ideas off of them.

“So, we’re going through the whole process.”

By now, you know Holland’s theory about winning a Stanley Cup. That a team needs to keep furnishing opportunities in order to eventually figure it all out.

“You just don’t show up and all of a sudden you’re good and you win the Cup. There seems to be a lot of major disappointments along the way,” he said. “Vegas has been at the final four, four times in six years.”

So the Oilers need to be a top-eight regular season team again, the group from which the Cup winner emerges roughly 75 per cent of the time. They need to get their goals-against average into that group as well.

Holland has to acquire the right help for the core he has assembled, while that core – and its coaching staff — has to adapt its game as well. Because it is not quite good enough, yet.

“What am I sayin’ to you? You’ve just got to keep winning,” Holland said. “You’ve got to put yourself in multiple situations so that your players, your coaching staff, have a greater understanding of what we need to change.”

But we think there’s something else that must occur. And Holland tips us off that he is in agreement.

“You need everybody playing their best,” Holland said. “Some people have a bigger slice of the responsibility, and there are some people who have a small piece. But they’ve all got a little piece of that responsibility. They have a role, a contribution, and ultimately when you go four rounds and you are the last team standing, everybody’s played good.”


But how do you demand Klim Kostin’s best game at the bottom of your lineup, when he averages 7:44 of ice time in the playoffs? How do you say to Philip Broberg, “Be better!” when he’s playing 6:53 a night? Or Mattias Janmark, at 8:26?

Any player who is playing just a dozen or so shifts in a 60-minute game has one goal: That is to be a non-event player.

Stay safe, and don’t screw up. That is the nature of trying to play NHL hockey when you hop the boards without even a sweat, against opposing players who invested and rolling in the emotions of a game.

Woodcroft’s deployment of 11 forwards and seven defencemen effectively neuters three players. The two wingers without a centre inevitably get forgotten about, and the seventh defenceman plays less and less as the game wears on.

Eleven and seven is, in reality, nine and six. It’s the opposite of a four-line Vegas team whose depth has been the single most important factor in earning them a parade down The Strip.

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And Holland, who points out that his team did have 13 10-goal scorers this past season, knows it.

“We’ve had those conversations. Certainly, what you’re talking about basically is growing the team and there’s more people involved in the ultimate outcome,” he said.

It’s a trap that ensnared both Todd McLellan and Dave Tippett as well: the tendency to depend on McDavid and Leon Draisaitl to play the hero, leaving the depth players on the bench to become spectators. Players who don’t feel invested, because whenever there is a need for a new hero, they’re on the bench watching the same heroes don the cape once again.

“From a coach’s perspective, when he’s in the heat of the battle, those two guys are so good. So good,” Holland said. “It’s hard. But certainly, if you’re looking at the big picture and you’re looking at April, May and June, you’re probably right. We need to get more people involved.”

Get them involved in November and January, so they can help with the heavy lifting in April and May.

That, and the need to keep on stepping up to the plate is what is going to land a Stanley Cup parade on Jasper Avenue one day, Holland believes.

“I can’t tell you this is going to lead to the Stanley Cup. But I do know it’s the only path,” he said. “You’ve got to be good year after year after year after year. You’ve got to put yourself in that situation multiple times.

“And believe that you’re going to find the way.”

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